“Inadequacy Marketing–Lessons from a cool new book, “Story Wars.”

I just read a marvelous book this weekend. Called “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell – and live – the best stories will rule the future.” It’s by Jonah Sachs.

And like the title suggests, Sachs says the brands with the better stories win. He cites a good example of an inferior brand prevailing over a better brand simply by telling a better story. Here’s an excerpt.

“Case in point: John Kerry [who ran against George Bush in 2004]. Kerry was so convinced of the clarity of his muddled message, and so exasperated with his opponent’s seeming ineptitude, that he blabbered on about his own heroic service and the strength of his resume. He was shocked (though he shouldn’t have been) to find himself defeated by a weaker opponent with a better story.

…A few days after the election, a frustrated [Democratic] James Carville complained: ‘[The Republicans] produce a narrative. We produce a litany. George Bush said: “‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say, ‘We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.’ And so there’s a Republican narrative – a story – and then there’s a Democratic litany.’” [Definition of litany is “a long list of complaints and problems.”]

I love that story. And whatever your politics are, you have to agree, in 2004 the GOP kept it simple. They told a simple story and stuck to it.

What’s most fascinating about Sachs discussion of the ‘04 GOP campaign was that it was based on fear. An emotional marketing technique that’s been leveraged by Madison Avenue for years. He calls the old approach “inadequacy marketing.”

“You aren’t pretty enough until you lose weight.”

“You aren’t clean enough unless you use this detergent.”

This approach has been around so long, it was used in a Stones tune from the ’60s: “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

When I’m watchin’ my TV
and the man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
the same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no…..

Sachs points us instead to a new world order of what he calls “empowerment marketing” – “stories told to help encourage audiences on their path to maturation and citizenship.”

Here, instead of appealing to fear or to the love of money, empowerment stories challenge the customer to reach higher, to be something more. No better example comes to mind than the copy Steve Jobs and TBWAChiatDay wrote for Apple’s “Think Different” campaign.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Very cool. It bears noting here that, in the wrong hands, “empowerment” stories can go all Hallmark Cards on you and get sappy. But, done correctly, it can lead to cool stuff like Weiden + Kennedy’s “Work” campaign for Levi’s. Even W+K’s campaign for Old Spice (“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”) is arguably more about empowerment and less about inadequacy.

In closing, I need to point out that I’m not sayin’ inadequacy marketing is over. Leveraging customer fears can work just fine: I refer again to Bush v Kerry. But is it possible we could do bigger better things for our clients with a better story? Would it ever work if we told a story that appealed to higher ideals of the public? Can we appeal to the better angels of our nature and actually win a story war?

To quote from another campaign, “Yes, we can.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

For a real brand geek thrill, listen to Steve Jobs actually reading the copy for the “Here’s To The Crazy Ones” commercial.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggested Reading

There is no shortcut. This is how we learn it. Bit by bit.
View List

Recent Tweets

Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.